global politics, relationally

Discourse analysis of “Israel Apartheid Week”: Where’s the peace?


This is a post by Renee Marlin-Bennett. Security issues at RelationsInternational have made the author byline incorrect. We’re sorry for the inconvenience.

On the Wednesday of Israel Apartheid Week, the daily email announcements from the University included the following:

Palestinian Solidarity, Anti-Zionism, and BDS

Join us for our first event of Israeli Apartheid Week at Hopkins. We will be having members from Jewish Voice for Peace and Hopkins Students for Justice in Palestine speak about anti-Zionism, Palestinian solidarity, and BDS (JHU “Today’s Announcements,” via email, 2/25/2014; italics in original).

In the space of these fifty words, I was struck by the divisiveness and violence of the use of “Anti-Zionism;” conflicted about the invocation of apartheid; strongly opposed to but not at all offended by the advocacy of boycotts of, divestment from, and sanctions on Israel and Israelis (BDS); and, if Palestinian solidarity means caring about the lives and futures of the Palestinian people, then broadly supportive.

 (1) “Anti-Zionism” is a divisive, even violent, usage that targets Jewish national identity.  To advocate Anti-Zionism is to oppose the existence of Zionists, and this is problematic.  While this is protected political speech and should not be shut down (no matter how offensive I find it), the discourse itself shows a lack of understanding of what Zionism is, its historical context, and the current political context of this phrase.  Students who blithely say, “Let’s rally in support of anti-Zionism,” thinking that this is just a catchy way of saying “Let’s rally in support of Palestine,” do not understand what supporting anti-Zionism means in terms of de-legitimating and denigrating a national identity and how singling out Jewish national identity for de-legitimation is really problematic.

Zionism is not, despite rhetoric from opponents of the State of Israel, a synonym for “Israel’s policies and practices.”  Zionism is the form that Jewish nationalism has taken over time, and the core idea is that Jews are not just “co-religionists,” but rather have a national identity associated with place on the planet.[i]  National identities and nationalisms are obviously socially constructed, but they are no less real and meaningful in peoples’ lives for that.  Modern Zionism emerged out of the communal insecurity faced by Jews who were never truly accepted as citizens in diaspora.  Despite integration of Jews in to Western societies since the 18th century, deep anti-Semitism persisted (and continues with vigor[ii]).  Physical violence and other violations of what we would now call “human rights” and “civil rights” are the embodied practices that contributed to the formation of identity, though more positive conditions (a recognition of shared history and culture) played a role as well.  Violence is particularly potent, though.  The Holocaust cemented Jewish national identity. 

Nationalisms and national identities certainly change, growing more complex and nuanced in some ways, perhaps more uniform in others.  Yes, Zionism was broadly contentious among Jews into the middle of the 20th Century and today not all Jews are Zionists.  Further, varieties of Zionisms are contradictory.  “Post-Zionism,” a rejection of Zionism rather than a de-legitimation of it, does not offend me the way “Anti-Zionism” does.  Despite challenges, Zionism persists: It is hard to dismantle national identity and to convince people that an identity they used to have and organize their sense of self and community around is no longer.[iii] “Anti-Zionism” is violent because it encapsulates a denial of legitimate identity.

 (2) Advocating BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel) is political speech that ought to be protected.  But it’s a flawed strategy. I believe that peace making requires that those who were once enemies work together.  Consequently, boycotts, divestment, and sanctions are counter-productive because they keep peoples apart.  Furthermore, it is always stunning to me that those who are quick to urge BDS against Israel rarely notice the human rights violations of countries other than Israel.  Shouldn’t they be for boycotting, divesting from, and placing sanctions on all countries that violate rights for the sake of consistency?

(3) Equating Israel with Apartheid is complicated. If you are decomposing apartheid into different apartheid-like policies, then Israel does have certain apartheid-like policies in place (notably with respect to who lives where).  If you are saying that Israel is exactly the same as Apartheid-era South Africa, then the very fact that Israeli Arab citizens can vote and be members of the parliament shows how wrong the comparison is.  So are you using “apartheid” to open a conversation or to close it down and shun Israel?

 (4)  It’s too bad that the advertisement didn’t just ask people to come out and rally in support of Palestinian rights and peace in Israel-Palestine.  That’s a cause I could support.

I think this post from JStreet makes important points.


[i] That Israel’s emplacement led to Palestinians’ displacement is unquestionably true and, in my opinion, a historical event of great moral complexity, with elements of flat out injustice as well as elements of redemption.  Zionism was a cause (not the only or even most important cause) of the establishment of the State of Israel (and the Naqba).  More broadly, Zionism is a late 19th Century European nationalism grafted onto a 20th Century world alongside contending postcolonial nationalisms.

[ii] Susie Jacobs, “Globalisation, anti-globalisation and the Jewish ‘question,’” European Review of History: Revue europeenne d’histoire 18.1 (2001); Benjamin Harrison, The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and Liberal Opinion (Rowman and Littlefield, 2006); Edward H. Kaplan and Charles A. Small, “Anti-Israel Sentiment Predicts Anti-Semitism in Europe,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 50 (August 2006): 548-561, doi:10.1177/0022002706289184; Alain Badiou, Eric Hazan, Ivan Segré, Reflections on Anti-Semitism (Verso Books, 2013).

[iii] See the work of Edward E. Azar on protracted social conflict and the need for self-identified communities to feel that their identity is secure.  One example is: “Protracted international conflicts: Ten propositions,” International Interactions 12.1 (1985).